Mark Story

Is there a better ‘near rivalry’ in college hoops than Kentucky vs. West Virginia?

West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins could only sit quietly and watch as Kentucky obliterated the Mountaineers 78-39 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament round of 16 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins could only sit quietly and watch as Kentucky obliterated the Mountaineers 78-39 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament round of 16 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

As contiguous states with some history of conflict — recall the interstate unpleasantness between Hatfields and McCoys — the universities of Kentucky and West Virginia would seem primed for a contentious sports rivalry.

Except, in men’s basketball, the Wildcats and Mountaineers have not played enough to really be classified “rivals.”

When John Calipari’s Wildcats (15-5) visit Bob Huggins’ No. 7 Mountaineers (16-4) on Saturday at 7 p.m. as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, it will only be the 21st meeting between the teams in a series the Wildcats lead 15-5.

So UK vs. WVU is best described as one of the most intriguing “near rivalries” in college hoops.

Wall & Cousins West Virgina
Kentucky freshmen stars John Wall, left, and DeMarcus Cousins sat dejectedly on the bench in the final seconds as West Virginia defeated Kentucky 73-66 in the 2010 NCAA Tournament round of eight. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

This weekend, Kentucky will travel to Morgantown to make its first appearance on West Virginia’s home court since Dec. 7, 1970 (a 106-100 UK win). The Cats have beaten the Mountaineers nine times out of the 10 most recent meetings — which are spread from 1962 through 2015.

Back in your grandfather’s day, West Virginia and its most iconic player — Jerry West — were the marquee attractions in the University of Kentucky Invitation Tournament three seasons straight.

As a sophomore in 1957-58, West scored 15 points to help the Mountaineers beat eventual NCAA champion Kentucky 77-70 in the semifinals of the UKIT.

The following season, West scored 36 points and snared 16 rebounds, but Kentucky prevailed in the UKIT finals 97-91.

Jerry West
In three games against Kentucky in the University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament in the late 1950s, iconic West Virginia star Jerry West scored 15 points, 36 points and 33 points against Coach Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats and led the Mountaineers to two victories. West Virginia Tourism Office

As a senior, West had one more maestro performance to deliver in Lexington. The West Virginia guard had 33 points and 18 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers past Kentucky 79-70 in the UKIT finals.

In recent times, the “near rivalry” has been exclusively contested in the NCAA Tournament.

For the Big Blue Nation, the one WVU victory in its past 10 meetings with Kentucky really stung.

In the first year (2009-10) of what was to become the one-and-done era of Kentucky basketball, freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe led the Cats to a 35-2 record and within one win of the Final Four.

All that stood between the Cats and UK’s first visit to the national semifinals since 1998 was a veteran West Virginia team led by swingman Da’Sean Butler.

Capitalizing on defensive length and relying on a 1-3-1 zone, West Virginia forced UK into 23-for-67 shooting that included a dreadful 4-for-32 from three-point range.

Meanwhile, against the dynamic UK backcourt of Wall and Bledsoe, an unheralded WVU guard, Joe Mazzulla, went for 17 points.

That’s how a UK team that, only months later, would have five players chosen in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft absorbed a 73-66 loss that kept it from the Final Four.

The following season, it seemed West Virginia was poised to end Kentucky’s season again. In the round of 32 of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, West Virginia led UK 41-33 at halftime behind 15 first-half points from Kentucky nemesis Mazzulla.

However, with Brandon Knight pouring in 30 points and DeAndre Liggins holding Mazzulla to five second-half points, UK rallied for a 71-63 win. Two victories later, the Cats made the Final Four trip West Virginia had denied the year before.

UK and WVU found each other in the NCAA Tournament again in 2015, facing off in the round of 16 in Cleveland.

That game was notable because then-West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. predicted WVU was going to spoil Kentucky’s 36-0 record.

“Salute to them getting up to 36-0, but tomorrow they are gonna be 36-1,” he said. Miles Jr. also said of UK that “to me, they don’t play hard. To me, they don’t play as hard as we play.”

The next night, the Kentucky players took great relish in holding Miles Jr. scoreless in his 19 minutes while UK obliterated West Virginia, 78-39.

Daxter Miles
West Virginia guard Daxter Miles Jr. — who had predicted that unbeaten Kentucky would cease being unbeaten after facing the Mountaineers in the 2015 NCAA Tournament round of 16 — hung his head in the second half of what became a 78-39 UK rout of WVU. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

“Lot of talkin’ lot of tweetin’ till they have to play,” Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison pointedly tweeted after the game.

Now a senior, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Miles Jr. is West Virginia’s second-leading scorer (13.1 ppg).

He and his “Press Virginia” teammates — which include former Covington Holmes star James “Beetle” Bolden (9.4 ppg) — will try to use their signature full-court pressure to rattle a young Kentucky team that has proven turnover prone (average of 16 miscues) in its five losses.

Whatever happens Saturday, it will be another intriguing chapter in one of college basketball’s most compelling “near rivalries.”

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